'02 among safest for U.S. air travelers

Improved technology, better crew watchfulness, just plain luck draw credit

January 01, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Despite a tumultuous year in which two major airlines went bankrupt and the nation's aviation security system was overhauled, America's skies were so safe that no one had died in commercial airliners as 2002 was drawing to a close yesterday.

That would make the third no-deaths safety record in 10 years. The record is all the more remarkable because it follows the worst year in two decades of American commercial aviation, when terrorism helped push the death toll to 525.

Worldwide, there had been 19 fatal accidents for passenger flights in 2002, an all-time low for the post-World War II era.

"From a passenger's point of view, 2002 has been the safest year since 1946," said Harro Ranter, president of the Aviation Safety Network, a Netherlands-based group that tracks worldwide airliner accidents.

Credit a combination of improved technology, better crew watchfulness because of terrorism concerns, and just plain luck, said Eric Doten, director of the Center for Aerospace Safety/Security Education at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Two types of warning technology developed in the past decade reduced the chances of mid-air collisions and cut down on planes flying into the ground or mountains, he said.

A common factor behind the three perfect U.S. safety years - 1993, 1998 and 2002 - is the stressed-out airline industry, said Tom Farrier, safety director for the Air Transport Association, the airliners' lobby. In 1993, the economy was in a downturn. In 1998, two government studies had just warned of holes in aviation security. And in 2002, there were security worries left over from the terror attacks in 2001 and an economic downturn that sent United Airlines and US Airways into bankruptcy.

During stressful times, everyone in aviation refocuses attention, and "it adds up to a re-emphasis of the fundamentals," Farrier said yesterday.

Also, with air traffic down about 10 percent from 2000, many older airplanes were taken out of service, making the American airliner fleet younger, he said.

"What a testament to the world's best aviation system," said Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. "It is truly remarkable that at the same time we have built unprecedented security into our system, it also has retained its status as the safest system in the world."

There was only one accident in 2002 that the National Transportation Safety Board considered major: A Federal Express Boeing 727 crashed in Tallahassee, Fla., in July, injuring one person.

There were more than 300 fatal accidents in small personal planes and charter aircraft that aren't regularly scheduled commercial airliners, such as the crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, daughter and three aides in October.

More security measures - and probably more travel delays - are coming with the new year. More than 90 percent of the nation's checked luggage will be mechanically searched for bombs under a Dec. 31 baggage-screening deadline set by law. The rest will get waivers allowing less rigorous examinations, such as checks by bomb-sniffing dogs.

With more screening, U.S. fliers feel safer and more secure, according to Ira Weinstein, the president of Airport Interviewing & Research Inc., a White Plains, N.Y., company that surveys fliers for more than 80 airport authorities.

In several thousand interviews conducted in late October, 60 percent of U.S. passengers said they had confidence in airport security checkpoints, compared with 51 percent before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Weinstein said. Overall passenger satisfaction increased 12 percent in the past six months, he said.

People said they didn't mind the longer waits - an average of 71 minutes inside terminals after arriving early for screenings as recommended - and wanted more noticeable security guards in terminals and main concourses, Weinstein said.

Part of that may be a change in passengers' perspectives after Sept. 11, said Weinstein and David Stempler, the president of the Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group for passengers.

"People are resigned to the fact that things have changed," Stempler said. "It may not mean more satisfaction. It may mean fewer complaints."

Still, Stempler said the perfect safety record for 2002 shows "there's been an extra effort to do well in the midst of adversity."

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